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The Aviary Lacks Alinea’s High-Flying Thrills

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The East Coast debut of Chicago’s most celebrated fine dining team fails to make an impact

Once upon a time, there was an East Village wonderland called Booker and Dax, a magically boozy place that sprinkled pixie dust over the city’s largely classical and overly serious cocktail scene. Bartenders caramelized drinks with blazing-hot pokers and clarified ripe bananas into rum with centrifuges and froze basil leaves with liquid nitrogen. The complex techniques and wacky flavors made it the city’s only fully experimental bar. And somehow it was also an accessible experiment, with $14 drinks, $12 ham plates, and no reservations.

It closed in 2016, but less than a year later, New York again has a modernist cocktail parlor, albeit in a slightly different latitude and altitude: the 35th floor of the Mandarin Oriental on Columbus Circle. The Aviary, a spinoff of the Chicago original, is the long-awaited East Coast debut from the folks behind Alinea, a world-renowned gastronomic playpen where chefs send out fried chicken liver mousse made to look like volcanic ash, and where patrons suck the helium out of green apple taffy balloons.

The Aviary’s bar-slash-kitchen
The Aviary’s bar-slash-kitchen

So it’s no surprise when The Aviary’s bartenders — a loose term, as the bar is a glass-walled kitchen — send out the following bit of whimsy: coffee-laced Manhattans in clear bags filled everything-bagel perfume. A server cuts open the bag and the scent lingers for just a second. It is only transportive in the sense that it evokes something New Yorkers eat every day for a buck. Here, that aroma and the very average mix of rye and vermouth it perfumes cost $27.

The Aviary, alas, isn’t as accessible of an experiment as the dearly departed Booker and Dax. It is, however, a great place to Instagram cocktails, if that’s your thing. Perhaps you’ve seen photos of that bagel drink juxtaposed against the Central Park skyline, with the restaurant’s branding emblazoned on the bag? The staff will even offer to ’gram for you if your drink has a particularly intense interactive element.

The Aviary’s gigantic pork rind
Pork rind
The Aviary
Coconut ice cream, lime sorbet, cashew pudding, tonka bean meringue

If only The Aviary were also a great place to drink those cocktails. Or pair food with them. Bar snacks, typically a category of cuisine that’s meant to nourish (and dampen the effects of alcohol) trend in the direction of internationally eclectic hors d’oeuvres here at The Mandarin. The bites are geared toward whetting the palate and draining the wallet, from the rustically expensive — a pork rind the size of a small child for $17 — to the nearly unshareable — about three bites of kampachi ceviche with Thai green curry for $24 — to the wholly unshareable — Alinea’s raviolo of black truffle juice, a single bite for $18.

For those who care to avoid the wait for walk-ins, reserving a seat requires non-refundable deposits to the tune of $40 to $100 per couple in the evenings. If same-week a la carte spots are in short supply, it’s often easier to reserve for cocktail and canape tastings, running $280 or more for two after tax and service, a spendy reality that smacks of we’ll-only-book-you-for-bottle-service elitism.

The deposit-style booking process also applies to the sister spot next door, The Office, a windowless ode to leather and wood that serves cocktails that are more creatively traditional than avant-garde. Think: amaretto sours laced with black truffle or Old Fashioneds infused with notes of banana and miso. It also serves beef tartare for $45. And Iberico ham plates for $64. Like The Aviary, or much of New York, it feels designed for a particular tax bracket.

To be fair, The Aviary, the focus of this review, and The Office remain true to their haute origins. Frontmen Nick Kokonas and chef Grant Achatz are largely luxury restaurateurs; dinner for two at Alinea can easily run $1,050 or more. The Aviary, in turn, has been a spendy affair since its Chicago debut in 2011. That bar, according to its own website, is where “cocktails and service are given the same attention to detail as a four-star restaurant.”

That description, however immodest, feels apt when imbibing the “Bring Another Smurf,” a cocktail that involves a layer of white-coconut cordial sitting underneath a purple frozen disc of pea flower-infused mezcal. It arrives in a freestanding glass pipe. You blow to mix the components. Then you inhale. The stem liquid tastes strongly of booze and lime, while the aroma from the fat tobacco end of the pipe is pure tropical fruit. The drink doesn’t so much evoke a margarita as it does something Dumbledore might imbibe in a Harry Potter novel.

The Aviary’s “Bring Another Smurf”
“Bring Another Smurf”

Just as exhilarating is the gin and tonic. It’s a blend of Bombay Sapphire, apple, almond, and frozen cucumber that looks like a mad scientist’s green beaker, drinks like a slushie, and packs a level of vibrantly fizzy carbonation that almost borders on Alka Seltzer.

That G&T is $21. That not a bad thing, per se. As wine pairings sometimes approach the price of tasting menus, and as martinis often cost more than a burger, there’s something to be said for spending a few extra dollars on bespoke cocktails that, arguably, inspire at the same level as a composed dish that likely took as long to create.

The Aviary
The entrance
The Aviary
The lobby-like interior

But value is a product of more than just a few fantastic drinks. The bad news is the larger experience of spending an hour or two at The Aviary isn’t quite as splendid as it should be at these prices. The bar, despite its seductive curvilinear sofas, feels like an extension of the hotel lobby. Giant windows overlook Central Park, but the Mandarin’s brightly lit reception area reflects back, partially hampering the vistas. And the lounge-y soundtrack evokes the inane background music in a luxury car advert.

Meanwhile, some of The Aviary’s other drinks fail to live up to their prices.

Take the “Science A.F.” The complex and compelling elements of a penicillin — ginger, lemon, and scotch — are sucked up into a heated vacuum coffee chamber, tableside, where they’re all warmed up and infused with blueberry meritage tea. The resulting product, poured over ice cubes that melt quickly, has all the color, complexity, and flavor of watery Hi-C. Cost: $28.

“In the Rocks” at The Aviary
“In the Rocks”

Consider “In the Rocks,” an Old Fashioned encapsulated in a sphere of ice. Diners break it apart with a modified slingshot. It splatters cold shards of ice on the tables, and it results in a glass of under-diluted scotch, a bit of cassis, and none of the Sichuan peppercorn the menu promises. It comes with a half a glass of Champagne and costs $29.

In the mood for a bloody mary? The kitchen places five tiny garnishes not on the rim of a highball, as is the norm, but on an elevated glass tray. Those bites, which include a littleneck clam with spicy cucumber, as well as a little knob of tomato-horseradish gelee, are uncomplicatedly refreshing. Then comes the bloody itself. A server pours it into a hole in the middle of the garnish tray, funneling the liquid into a small glass bowl filled with fresno pepper ice balls. It starts out as lukewarm, without any compelling acidity, then finishes as spicy and watery, without any compelling acidity. The cost is $38, more than a typical hanger steak.

Pro tip: Do not make reservations for The Aviary’s tastings. Cocktail lounges are more pleasant when you don’t risk your own money on a pre-purchase agreement for a set amount of alcoholic beverages 14 days out. Make the decision on how much to booze up when you show up.

Another tip: Skip the ramen, an appetizer-sized portion of mushroom dashi and insubstantial noodles for $27. The chawanmushi is also a miss; the delicate Japanese custard should tremble on the spoon like a flan that’s only barely set. Here, it sports the denser consistency of a gently overcooked pot de creme.

The A5 wagyu steak is the steal of the menu for $29. It’s all you need to understand the powerful beefiness and luxurious fattiness that this cut provides, and it’s an entirely better deal than at other venues, which typically charge $100 for unnecessarily large portions.

Finish with the pineapple, the sweet fruit acting as a foil to savory mole, or end with the white dessert, a plate whose monochromatic palette belies a stunning collection of textures and flavors, from coconut ice cream to lime sorbet to cashew pudding and tonka bean meringue. Pair it with the carrot cake cocktail, a simple riff on the Ramos Fizz (egg white, gin, lemon) that tastes precisely of the cream cheese-studded sweet.

So that’s The Aviary. It might fulfill the needs of a luxury hotel, but it doesn’t represent the bright future of avant-garde cocktailery.

The Aviary
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7 days ago
"The Aviary, alas, isn’t as accessible of an experiment as the dearly departed Booker and Dax. It is, however, a great place to Instagram cocktails"
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Trump Is About to Make Tip-Pooling Legal Again. Here’s What That Means for Restaurant Workers

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Gratuities could be split between servers and cooks, or kept for the house

  • The Trump Administration's Department of Labor wants to allow restaurateurs to collect tips earned by front-of-house staff and redistribute them as they see fit.
  • This could help shore up the growing pay inequality between cooks and servers.
  • This could also mean employers could keep tips for themselves or the business.
  • The public has 30 days to comment on the rule, which was officially proposed today, before it goes into effect.

Here’s everything you need to know:

If just-announced changes to Department of Labor regulations go past the proposal stage, employers will be able to pool tips earned by servers, allowing them to share the tips with untipped employees like cooks, dishwashers, and others in the back of house — if they share them at all.

The proposed changes, first announced in July, roll back the Obama administration’s 2011 regulations that expressly prohibited the distribution of tips to anyone other than the front-of-house staff who earned them. Backers argue it’s a regulation that could go a long way towards erasing income inequality between back and front of the house. Others say it’s a recipe for a host of evils, ranging from tip-pocketing by management to unsustainably high labor costs. All optimists and skeptics can seem to agree on is this: It’s complicated.

What’s the old law this is replacing?

Any examination of how restaurant workers are paid begins with the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the federal law which governs things like minimum wage (currently $7.25 an hour, though states like New York set it higher), and overtime (defined as working more than 40 hours per week). The wrinkle with so-called “service-facing” or “chain of service” workers like servers and bartenders is that they get tips. For tipped employees, employers may take what is called a “tip credit,” meaning they can pay tipped employees less than the minimum wage (the federal tipped minimum wage $2.13) as long as the tips will bring that wage up to $7.25 an hour.

Under the Obama administration’s 2011 regulations, tips are considered the property of the service-facing employee (waiters, bussers, bartenders), and therefore employers cannot require them to share their tips. “The waiter’s position has always been, tips are our property, and under Obama, that was the case,” says Marc Zimmerman, a hospitality labor and employment lawyer for the past 20 years and a partner at Michelman & Robinson.

How tips became problematic:

The result has meant a stark income disparity between waiters and cooks. As restaurateur Danny Meyer argued in his 2010 book Setting the Table, tipped employees are making about 300 percent of what they were 31 years ago. During that same period, everyone in the kitchen — the dishwasher, non-tip-eligible employees — has seen their hourly income go up about 20 percent.

The inequity between front and back of the house has caused some operators, notably Meyer, to abandon tipping altogether. The practice has been the subject of much heated discussion in the industry. Some clever operators are sending cooks out into the dining room to run and serve food so that they can be considered “service-facing” and share in the tip pool. Others suggest the better fix for restaurant workers would be to instead split tips between back of house and front.

Courts, too, have been divided on this issue. The 9th Circuit (California, Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Arizona, Hawaii, Oregon) has sided with waiters, holding that tip sharing between waiters and cooks is prohibited, even if an employer pays full minimum wage, while others — the 4th Circuit (Maryland, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia), the 10th Circuit (Kansas, Oklahoma, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico), and the 11th Circuit (Florida, Georgia, and Alabama), have rejected the regulations, saying an employer can require tip sharing as long as it pays full minimum wage. This split in the courts set the issue up nicely for a Supreme Court decision. But since the Trump administration’s new regulations have effectively repealed Obama’s prohibition against tip-sharing, that won’t be necessary.

Why are worker advocates worried?

A big problem with the new regulations is that employers may now legally pocket tips. Under the traditional paradigm, an employer takes the tip credit, pays all of their “service-facing” employees $2.13 an hour plus tips, and pays cooks and dishwashers $7.25 an hour, no tips (the numbers would be different according to minimum wage laws state to state, but this is the general idea).

But if they decide to follow the DOL’s new rule, and they don’t take the tip credit, and instead pay minimum wage of $7.25 an hour to all their employees, then tips are no longer considered the property of the employee; they become property of the employer. That employer could split those tips between back and front of the house. Then again, the employer could also keep them all.

The National Restaurant Association, which has come out strongly in support of the Trump Administration’s proposed change, acknowledges this loophole, but has not asked the DOL to add a provision that would bar an employer from keeping an employee’s tips.

That possibility is of grave concern to worker advocates like Patricia Smith, senior counsel at the National Employment Law Project and former Obama administration solicitor of labor, who argues that these new regulations put the employer in charge of the tip jar. “I am sensitive to the disparity between back and front of house workers, but this proposed regulation allows an owner to pocket all the tips, or redistribute them,” she says. “What if he or she chooses to pocket all of them and then no one gets the tips?”

Indeed, wage theft, which includes suits for failure to pay overtime, improperly counting hours, and misappropriating tips, is a huge issue in the restaurant industry and the subject of many lawsuits. As some immigration advocates note, undocumented and immigrant workers are particularly vulnerable to wage theft, as they might not feel empowered to file complaints against their employers; the issue is rampant enough that one organization has developed an app that helps workers report incidences of theft.

What’s most troubling, says Smith, is the lack of transparency. That’s because many states, like New York and California, have laws that prohibit tips from being shared between back- and front-of-house employees, and that also explicitly prohibit management from sharing in the pot. Other states, however, do not have these protections in place. How is a diner supposed to know what restaurants are sharing tips and which are not?

The industry has a poor track record: Even with the current FLSA prohibitions against tip dipping in place, restaurants still bend the rules when it comes to tip-sharing practices. In recent months, restaurants like Zahav, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, and Meyer’s Gramercy Tavern have settled lawsuits from servers who argued their tip-sharing practices violated the 2011 Fair Labor Standards Act. Chain restaurants also regularly commit wage violations: According to Department of Labor data, restaurant groups like DineEquity (parent company of IHOP and Applebee’s) and Darden Restaurants (parent company of the Olive Garden) have paid numerous fines for wage theft, and wage and hour violations.

Corey Gammon, who has been a server at Olive Garden in Kenesaw, Georgia, for the past six years, is uneasy about the new law. “I would hope that you could trust the restaurant manager to share tips without having to worry about theft, but I would be concerned,” he says. “Leaving it up to management would cause so much suspicion with servers. I would feel very uneasy about that.”

Restaurant Opportunities Center United, a worker advocacy group, also opposes the new regulations, not only because it believes tips should always be considered property of the employee, but because of what it sees as an increased threat of sexual harassment in the workplace. According to a recently published ROC report, “women who rely on customers’ tips for the bulk of their income are twice as likely to be harassed” due to their interactions with customers and uniform requirements. If tips are the property of the employer, they argue, workers may be pressured to tolerate inappropriate behavior to receive their fair share of those tips.

ROC also argues that this new ruling would “allow Donald Trump, the owner of multiple businesses that employ tipped workers, to keep and profit from his employees’ tips in all of his various businesses.”

Why do some advocates and operators think it’s a step in the right direction?

The rationale in favor of Trump’s tip-sharing regulation rests on a big-picture concept of service. “Service comes from the entire restaurant,” says Dan Rafalin, managing partner at Avroko Hospitality Group, which owns and runs restaurants like Saxon and Parole and Genuine Roadside in New York City. “We believe that the cooks are part of the service experience and customer experience. We all come to work and we are in it together.”

Sara Jenkins, the chef and owner of Porsena restaurant in the East Village, says she would love to see New York adopt similar regulations to those proposed by the Trump DOL. (And this is not a woman who comes out in favor of Trump.) “I don’t think it’s fair that waiters take home such significantly huge salaries that the kitchen does not,” she says. “If I could share tips between front and back of house, even if I had to pay full minimum wage, I would do it.”

The Golden Gate Restaurant Association has long advocated for tip sharing between the front and back of the house, with a prohibition against owner’s pocketing tips. “It’s funny that the person who actually cooked your food is not considered part of the chain of service and can’t share in tips,” says Gwyneth Borden, executive director of the association. “We believe that tip sharing is one way to help support better wages across the restaurant, while still allowing service staff to still be well compensated by tips.”

Borden acknowledges that the change in federal regulations will not have an immediate effect on California’s state labor laws, but she hopes “that this decision would open up the opportunity to inspire change to the state law.”

Is this option even feasible for independent restaurateurs?

Others are unsure of how paying everyone minimum wage, plus tips, would make financial sense for a restaurant. “If I can’t take that tip credit, it makes it very difficult to run a restaurant because our margins are so slim,” says Rafalin, who saw the NYC tipped minimum wage go from $5.00 to $7.50 in late 2016. When that increase occurred, he asked his staff at Saxon and Parole to reduce the number of hours worked in the last six weeks of 2015. The group ended up cutting 570 hours from its books, but the increase still cost the restaurants $5,621 more than the previous year for that time period.

“To pay everyone full minimum wage without taking the tip credit would be nearly impossible,” Rafalin says. In fact, those tight margins could incentivize a restaurateur to keep a portion of their employee’s tips for the house, to make ends meet.

What next?

For the next 30 days (until January 4, 2018) the DOL will accept public comments on the proposed regulation. (See here for full brief.) “This allows for a virtual town hall open forum, for voices on both sides to argue their case,” explains Zimmerman. “Some proposed regulations get tweaked a bit after public comment and others go through as is."

In this case, Zimmerman expects the regulation to make it unscathed. “It’s fairly black and white. The Trump administration understands the counter-arguments raised by worker advocates, and disagrees, which is the point of their proposed new rule.” But there is some gray area: If the rule were tweaked to permit tip sharing between front and back of the house workers while explicitly prohibiting the house from sharing in the tip pool, it would certainly gain a broader base of support and eliminate the fear of increased wage theft.

For those deeply entrenched on both sides of this issue, equity seems to be the magic word. “Possibly the most important thought is that we are eliminating wage disparity between different classes of employees,” says Zimmerman. “We give everyone a share by making tips belong to all restaurant employees. The end result under the new regulations is that we are all in this together providing excellent food and service.”

Smith isn’t so sure. “Changing cultures is always rocky, I get that,” she says. “But I am not sure that changing laws to give an employer free reign is the way to go.”

Andrea Strong, founder of the pioneering food blog the Strong Buzz, has been writing about restaurants and food for the past 18 years.
Editors: Erin DeJesus and Daniela Galarza.

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8 days ago
this is terrible.
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KFC Is Eater’s #Brand of the Year

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A year’s worth of out-of-the-box viral campaigns made the chain relevant again

For the last five years or so, America’s fast-food chains have been trying anything and everything to appeal to those mysterious millennials, who, research shows, aren’t as interested in the cheap cheeseburgers and fries that previous generations liked so much. The millennial fixation has inspired artisanal pizza toppings, selfie payment plans, mascot wardrobe changes, endless customization options, and surprising cameos from kale and Sriracha. Many of these efforts haven’t made much of an impact on the way that younger diners understand these brands. But there is one long-established chain out there that’s managed to cut through the noise and stay relevant in the social media era: KFC.

The company didn’t switch up its menu or change its dining rooms to keep up with the times. Instead, it simply partnered with a crack creative team on a campaign that simultaneously tapped into nostalgia while also positioning the brand as part of the irreverent, eclectic culture of the internet. By reviving the Colonel, KFC got a serious second wind. And by maintaining such a creative and refreshingly weird aesthetic, KFC has earned Eater’s #Brand of the Year award for 2017.

“Making this brand relevant again meant getting back to the roots and the philosophy of the Colonel,“ says George Felix, the director of brand communication for KFC’s parent company. Colonel Harland Sanders was reintroduced in 2015 via a series of commercials starring SNL alum Darrell Hammond playing the crackpot fast-food entrepreneur. A few months later, Norm Macdonald stepped into the role, establishing a pattern that’s still going strong today. By changing the actors often, KFC helps combat mascot fatigue while also communicating that the brand is playful and a bit restless.

But over the last year in particular, KFC launched a bunch of amusing stunts, many of which riff on the idea of the Colonel as an eccentric, but passionate, businessman. 2017 saw Sanders appearing in both a ridiculous and slightly creepy VR training video and a romance novella. The fried chicken salesman served as the inspiration for a legitimately cool apparel line. His arms and torso provided the roof of a Black Friday internet shelter. And in the ultimate stunt, the man in white sent one of his chicken sandwiches to the edge of space.

“We try to do as many things as we can outside of deals, offers, and product launches to just keep the brand in pop culture and keep people’s attention,” says Eric Baldwin, executive creative director at the ad agency Wieden+Kennedy. Baldwin, a former graphic designer who helped cook up the Old Spice Man ads, started his work on this campaign by scanning through the entrepreneur’s personal archive, which KFC keeps in a cave-like space at its Louisville, Kentucky headquarters.

“We found these awards that he had kept,” Baldwin says. “Old scripts, old footage from commercials, old packaging designs, old product innovations that had long been forgotten: a lot of that stuff informed our point of view. We were surprised to see that the Colonel seemed to find a way to tie fried chicken to any occasion.”

As Baldwin notes, many old KFC commercials show Sanders inserting himself and his chicken buckets into places where they seemingly didn’t belong. Forty years ago, that meant popping up at random picnics and in the family living room; W+K has modernized that approach into harlequin romance novels and graphic tees. In a few inspired bits, the 2017 Colonel also finds his way into old ads, and modern-day chicken lovers seemingly appear in vintage commercials.

Unlike many of his fast-food mascot colleagues, the Colonel is not always a cuddly fellow — he’s way pricklier than Wendy’s Dave Thomas or Ronald McDonald. This, too, is a reflection of the fast-food founder’s personality. “He would taste the gravy, and if it was bad, he was known to dump the whole thing on the floor and order the employees to clean it up and make it the right way,” Baldwin says.

Felix also notes: “He certainly was a character and a showman, but behind that was an unrelenting desire to serve the world’s best chicken.”

The inspiration for the most famous part of W+K’s current ad campaign — the rotating cast of actors playing the Colonel — was inspired by two other major pop culture figures: James Bond and Batman. “We felt like no one actor could really be Colonel Sanders,” Baldwin says. “Initially as we were going through this, we tried to do a casting call to try and find someone who looked like him. But then we realized that it was an inauthentic approach in a weird way, and it was better to have celebrities paying homage to his character as opposed to trying to recreate him.“

Beyond bringing KFC back to cultural relevancy, the Colonel campaign has also been good for business. “We’ve completed 11 consecutive quarters of same-store sales growth, which for us is fantastic,” Felix says. No word yet on what 2018 will have in store for the Colonel — or who will play him next — but hopefully, KFC and the team at W+K will keep making ads and stunts as refreshingly weird as their 2017 hits.

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8 days ago
im actually impressed by their branding this year
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Some people can hear this GIF


A lot of people can apparently hear this GIF. I can feel it.

The GIF was created by HappyToast.

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9 days ago
i can hear AND feel this gif. You?
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8 days ago
Boing Boing

Reservations for Noma 2.0 Sold Out in Less Than 24 Hours

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Congratulations to all the lucky ticket holders

Reservations for chef René Redzepi’s Noma 2.0 sold out in less than 14 hours. Reservations through April went live on Tock at 10 a.m. ET today, and by 10:30 a.m., reservations for February 15, opening night, were unavailable. By 11:30 p.m., Noma stans had snagged all of the available pre-paid (DKK 2,250 per person, or around $337 USD) reservations. The last to go were two reservations for parties of 8 for lunch in March.

Redzepi closed the original Noma location earlier this year to reopen the world-renowned restaurant in a space with an attached urban farm. In the meantime, Redzepi and the Noma team embarked on a series of pop-ups that took the chef’s foraging obsession to new terrain, including Tokyo, Sydney, and Tulum, Mexico.

Noma 2.0 was set to debut at the end of this year, but the launch was pushed to 2018 following construction delays. In the lead up to the opening next year, Redzepi and team traveled throughout Scandanavia and spent months developing recipes in a test kitchen. The first menu will focus on seafood. Redzepi will follow “seafood season” with a “vegetable season,” beginning early summer, and a “game and forest season,” from early fall through January 2019.

Those lucky reservation holders will see how the first new menu stacks up February 15.

Tock [Official]
Noma [Official]

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26 days ago
table for two were sold out in less than a min.
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An "exploding" coin-box uses cuteness to remind you of the futility of saving

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Bluehands's Coin Box is a super-cute, spring loaded cardboard coin-box: put a coin in it and it bursts apart, flinging away your money to remind you that, thanks to the imminent collapse of capitalism, saving is futile. (via Geekologie)

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30 days ago
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